The cycle of life in the Napa Valley follows the cycle of the wines that are made here.
During the winter months the Napa Valley can be a quiet place and a time of renewal. Many wineries use the time to deep clean, catch up on relationship building (marketing, travel) and bottle their wines. Bottling can occur during this season either indoors or out sometimes using mobile bottling systems. Around February vineyards on the valley floor take on a golden hue from the mustard plants that cover or carpet the rough soil in-between the rows.
Each type of wine follows a slightly different process but they get their start about the same time each spring when the grape vines begin sprouting green growth.
Winter: slow, quiet, maintenance. Cover crops take over the vineyard floor. The Napa Valley rarely gets snow but it is possible and a light dusting of snow can be magical on a cold, late afternoon near the end of February.
January is when the Napa Valley Marathon and Half marathon occur and bring a few thousand adventurous athletes to the Valley. It’s a great way to see much of the valley especially the parts that line the Silverado Trail. The full course starts in Calistoga and the half starts in Rutherford. Though it can be rainy the temperature is pretty ideal for most runners who find brisk temperatures make their pace brisk too.
During this time visitors to the valley often think that they are hearing helicopters circling over head during the night. It’s a sign that temperatures have dipped (this is not a risk above the frost line on Spring Mountain for example) and the vines or grapes are at risk of frost damage. Large fans turn on and off automatically in order to protect the grapes.
Spring: It’s important that the rain falls in the Napa Valley but that it doesn’t happen when the delicate flowers or buds are blooming and before the berries have set. All grapes start out as firm green berries. Red (or black) grapes develop color only after their pulp softens. Growing Season beings in April and can continue until the grapes have achieved the right levels of sugar and acidity which is often in September, but not always and depends on the location of the vineyard and the grape varietal.
Memorial Day weekend heralds the beginning of summer and in recent years has brought thousands of music fans to the Valley for Bottle Rock. Headliners have run the gamut and there’s even a culinary stage. Other music festivals are popular through out the Valley and include the Mondavi Summer Series and Festival Napa Valley.
Summer: While wineries are busy managing the vineyards it’s clear to see the importance of the farming aspect of winemaking. A common expression is “it takes a lot of beer to make a good wine.” Growing grapes requires the hot sunshine and cold nights typical of the Napa Valley. Living in the valley means welcoming winery traffic whether it is from guests who drive the tasting room business or trucks hauling fruitier tankers full of juice. Visitors are welcome here but the “Rush Hour” is when the wineries close at 4:30 p.m. and traffic heads down and out of the valley.
The most important fundraiser in the Valley is usually held the first week in June benefitting the Napa Valley Vitners Association. Guests travel from all of the world to enjoy the best food and wine during private dinners, a barrel tasting of hundreds of Napa wines and a gala that lasts all day and into the evening at Meadowood Resort.
The only other crop that Napans (some people prefer Napkins) take as much pride in as their grapes is tomatoes. Vine-ripened tomatoes grown in the Napa Valley are cultivated lovingly. They are started from seeds and put in the ground as early as March… they should be starved of water if possible which intensifies their flavor.
Harvest: Even if you are not involved in the wine industry it’s hard to miss the energy and activity of Harvest which begins when white wines are picked and then continues until all of the fruit has been picked usually from September-October. After picking, fruit will be sorted, transferred to tanks or barrels, pressed (the skins are removed) and then fermented.
Aging continues depending varietal either in bottles or barrels.
The challenge for all wineries is “consistency” which means maintaining the thread of the wine’s “profile.”
Winemaking is both an art and a science. The largest stylistic difference is often the result of where the grapes are sourced. If a winery uses its own estate grown fruit or if it blends wines that are sourced off property, the winemaker will have different challenges.
If a wine is produced using estate fruit, a variety of winemakers could be tasked with making “the best wine” possible from the grapes grown on property. It is possible to produce a wide variety of different wines from that very same juice. However, most estate wines try to create wines that are in some way unique or identifiable. It doesn’t mean the winemaker never changes. It just means that a new winemaker would taste through the past vintages and see what improvements might be made.
Improvements might be physical or stylistic. It might be time to replant aging vines. It might be time to experiment with cement barrels (called eggs) or to change something related to the yeast (in white wines) or shade in a cabernet vineyard that has an abundance of sun.
Each vintage nature evokes its own influence on the wines of the Napa Valley. Droughts, fires, rain after bud break, cooler years all influence the flavor of the wine that ends up in the glass that you sip after its release.